Family remembers Jastine Valdez: ‘She is the sweetest’
Relatives mourn as 24-year-old’s remains lie in her grandmother’s Philippines home
‘As a child Jastine was always the first pick to be a flower girl.’
The body of Jastine Valdez lies in an open coffin at the centre of her grandmother’s house amid tables neatly set with water, juice and snacks. Hundreds of mourners have come to pay their respects to the woman known as Jastine Jeryl by those closest to her.
“She’s the sweetest. She always takes care of us,” says her aunt Florida Calusa Lim who – like other loved ones – can’t yet speak of Jastine in the past tense.
“She always looks after her grandmother, my mom, who raised her while her parents were working overseas. She always says ‘I love you’. We adore her. We are just so happy we have this fine young lady,” says Lim.
The local community in Jastine’s home town of Aritao in the Philippines has organised the open house for the 24-year-old native who was abducted and murdered in Enniskerry last month.
Along the lane leading to the family home, there are messages of support from locals and posters of the accountancy student, who left her homeland three years ago to join her parents in Co Wicklow.
The funeral was set for Saturday but it has been delayed as the family await the arrival of other members from Singapore and Italy. It could take weeks. No one wants to let go of a young life so brutally extinguished.
It was Lim who chose the name Jeryl for her, and an uncle named his Jeepney taxi after his first niece. Lim, who has returned for the funeral from Singapore where she now lives, is the chosen voice of the family right now as Jastine’s parents Teresita and Danilo grieve the loss of their only child.
Sifting through childhood photographs of Jastine, a picture emerges of a woman full of enthusiasm and affection for her family.
As a child she was always the first pick to be a flower girl and there are lovely pictures of her walking down the aisle for the weddings of relatives and neighbours. Hand on hip, as a teenager, she takes a model pose.
Another photograph shows her as a majorette, standing beside the same house belonging to her grandmother that is now hosting her coffin.
Smiling and happy, a picture taken three weeks ago shows her on the Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim. Another shows her earlier this year just before the big snowfall in Ireland, the first time she had ever seen snow.
She was quite a conservative girl, hard-working, who went out just once a week; very focused, and very loving.
“The most painful thing is when they go without saying goodbye. You expect to be able to say goodbye. It’s not easy,” says Lim.
Jacinta joined her parents in Ireland three years ago having grown up in Aritao.
She went missing on May 19th, and her body was found two days later in undergrowth in the Rathmichael area. The man who killed her, Mark Hennessy (40) from Ballybrack in Co Dublin, was shot dead by a garda the next day in Carrickmines. Gardaí have not discovered any prior connection between the victim and her killer.
Her remains arrived at Clark International Airport in Pampanga on Wednesday night and were brought to Aritao on May 30th.
Sitting in the sweltering tropical heat outside the house, her relatives tell of how much she loved the beauty of the Irish countryside, and the Irish weather. In a poignant way, the abundant greenery in her home province of Nueva Vizcaya is not unlike the lush vegetation of Co Wicklow.
The Filipinos are famously hospitable people and here visitors are served cool glasses of coconut milk freshly hacked from a tree near the house. The conversation turns from grief to fond remembrance.
Filipinos are always proud to tell you how they love Christmas more than any other nation. True to form, Jastine would come back every year in December, to make the grandmother who raised her happy.
“We are a family that looks after each other. We need to take care of each other. When ‘Jas’ was grown up, I was relaxed and happy to see her grow into that lady who was caring and loving towards her cousins and my parents and to us,” says her aunt.
In many ways Filipino society resembles Ireland decades ago when mass emigration was normal, big families were a given, religion and politics were the daily bread and you could always rely on your family to get your back.
Jastine would address all of the older women in her family as “mama” because she was raised by a group of women, strong women too.
“She’s the first niece, and we shower her with all the love. Her grandmother won’t even allow a mosquito to land on her leg. She showered her with so much attention and love as a girl,” says Lim.
There is no sign of hostility to Irish people, indeed, the opposite seems to be the case. People take comfort in the way the people staged gatherings and prayer meetings in Ireland to show their support.
The case has generated widespread interest in the Philippines. Some people in Aritao, and in Manila, have wondered why the killer was shot before the body was found.
Honorary Consul of the Philippines for Ireland, Mark Congdon, has been travelling the length of the Philippines with the family to bring their daughter home.
“There are very few people in the world that touch a nation. Genuinely, Jastine has touched a nation and she has brought the Philippine and Irish people much closer together. That’s a beautiful thing for the future,” says Congdon.
“The support has been incredible, I’ve shown the family some of the turnouts and different prayer vigils and good wishes and grief. It does help a little bit,” he says. “She left a beautiful legacy for such a short life.”
For Jastine’s family, there will be lonely days ahead but there is a sense they won’t have to walk the road alone. “I don’t know how to measure the pain, the shock, the loss we have had. I don’t know how to tell you how we will start after this,” says Lim.
“I can’t imagine for my sister and my brother-in-law. If I can just take half of the pain so we can share the pain together and make it lighter. I will do it.
“Our people, our community here, hopefully we will, step by step, get somewhere that at the end of the day we can live happily even though there is no Jastine.”